Chef Himanshu Saini is loved and lauded for what he’s done with Indian food on a global level, including winning the first Michelin star for an Indian restaurant in Dubai. But for him, the journey to popularise the country’s culinary culture has just begun
I remember my first time trying out Trèsind Mumbai’s 10-course tasting menu — zero expectations of what’s to come, and by the eighth course, I found myself sliding into chef Himanshu Saini’s DMs to tell
him how absolutely well thought out and personalised this menu is. Cut to eight months later, as I sit with the man himself in his restaurant, I tell him how he never responded to my long fan mail. He profusely apologises, I embarrass myself, and we’re ready to roll.
Saini has worked with none other than one of the faces of modern Indian fine dining, Manish Mehrotra, at Indian Accent. He then went to Masala Library, and was involved with creating some of the most popular dishes of Farzi Café (that Parle G Cheesecake is genius), before moving to New York, and then, to Dubai. Trèsind was set up in 2014 in Dubai, followed by Carnival and then Trèsind Studio in Dubai, where he served a tasting menu of dishes to about 20 guests. Trèsind Mumbai opened around the same time too.
He says he started out not knowing what he was doing, but he sure as hell has figured it out while on his way, because in February, Trèsind and Trèsind Studio ranked 18 and 4 respectively in the inaugural edition of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in the Middle East and North Africa and shortly after, Trèsind Studio became the only Indian restaurant to win a Michelin star in the first-ever list published by the restaurant guide for Dubai.
“My food evolved as I evolved, and as we all keep evolving, food will go through its own evolution as well. I don’t believe in the philosophy of a signature dish, at least in my restaurant, because if you have a signature dish, you get stuck with those flavours and you don’t elevate. When we opened Trèsind, we made it theatrical, as that was the need of the hour. But now, our approach to our restaurants has changed— Trèsind is a family-style experience but in a fine dining setting. Carnival opened in 2016, and it’s more casual, and Trèsind Studio is where we want to do something focused, micromanaged, and more elaborate,” he details.
While every headline you’ll find about Saini immediately states modern Indian food, his take on the same takes me back to a conversation with chef Hussain Shahzad last year, where he said he was sick of the word ‘modern’. Saini agrees, and adds, “It is absolutely impossible to define Indian food. Modern Indian doesn’t mean I use thermomix or wasabi in the kitchen. Indian cuisine was modernised from the 16th century and even before that, given the colonial history, we had bread first introduced to us when there was no concept of the pav or the baked bread, it was all flatbreads. It’s more important to first understand our basics — every Indian spice is used differently in every kitchen — and then you go on to think of modernising. Can you explain chaat masala and the 100 ways to use it? Let’s start there,” he explains.
Discussing factors that play a role in shaping what we essentially call modern Indian, Saini explains that the service and the aesthetic that simplify it matter, because Indian food is complex. “I feel like serving 20 dishes and but then how you balance them, how you pace them, how you are sending it out, that’s modern Indian.”
His new 14-course tasting menu at Trèsind Mumbai does exactly that. We sit down, hungry. But first, comes a single piece of cucumber Pani Puri with preserved pear, feta cheese, and dill leaf. That is followed by a tasting portion of butternut ravioli, sage pesto, palak patta. A golden fried dal vada comes with a shot of carrot kanji, perfectly balancing the tang of the kanji with the vada’s spiciness. Each course is spaced, and explained by the server. I’m waiting for the meat, and as a slow-cooked lamb nihari curry makes it to the table with a side of khari so you don’t fill yourself up with pav — I almost ask for a second helping. But thank God I don’t, as then comes the palate cleanser, the famous khandvi ice cream with pickled papaya chilli—savoury ice with a hint of mirch.
The star of these 14 courses (sorry Himanshu, I know there is no signature dish for you) is the khichdi of India. A plain khichdi comes with a table full of tiny bowls with masalas from 20 states: saffron from Kashmir, green apple from Himachal, butter from Punjab, ghee from Haryana, pumpkin seeds from Rajasthan, papaya chutney from Gujarat, curry leaves from Karnataka, and so on. The server tells you the masala as they put a pinch each, leave it to you to mix it up, and take it with a side of curd, or not. I think I might be writing an ode to this khichdi soon.
“Exactly what I meant when I said the modernisation is also the service. You serve it, you explain what one dish is at a time, the pairing of it, and what we’re trying to do with each dish. It’s an important part of experiencing food,” he adds.
Dubai is a melting pot of culture, tourists from all over the world visit, and actually seems like an apt destination to showcase Indian food to the world. At the same time that also means catering to varying tastes, and witnessing the changing tastes of the quintessential Western traveller toward Indian food. Has Saini witnessed a shift? “Sometimes a Britisher will come in and say the food is not spicy enough, and if I compromised it to suit everyone’s tastes.
Well, why would I do that? Everything from India is not hot. Ghar ka khana has chillies on the side. I never compromise on anything to get the numbers. There’s this misconception of Indian food always being spicy or having tandoori bread, or rice on the menu. Europeans still have a bad standard for Indian food, so they are pleasantly surprised.
Also, the meal always starts with the Pani Puri, which people end up biting into, and we then give them another. We work on educating people about Indian food and we are seeing the change,” he says.
As a second-generation chef after Manish Mehrotra and Gaggan Anand, what does Saini feel are the challenges a chef doing modern Indian cuisine today will face? “To not get carried away,” he retorts. “Chef Manish always used to say do what you want with the dish, but its essence shouldn’t be compromised.
With progressive Indian food, it is very easy to get deviated. There is a fine balance between theatre and
ridicule. Theatre should add value to the dish and experience. I also got carried away at one point, but I learnt from my mistakes,” he admits.
Before Saini, chefs like Vikas Khanna, Manish Mehrotra, Vineet Bhatia, Atul Kochhar have been instrumental in bringing Indian cuisine to the international consumer. Saini’s a part of that movement too, I point out. “It’s not enough,” he says, adding, “See I will not talk about the progressive food, but the Indian in Indian cuisine is itself on a very bad foot. Apart from Gaggan, there has not been a single restaurant on the World’s 50 Best list. These chefs have done so much, but Indian cuisine is still not at par with other cuisines globally. The support within the industry is also limited, and comes only when you become something,” he candidly points out.
Saini’s restaurants getting their due recognition seems to be a positive step towards our positioning, and we are optimistic that the best is yet to come. He believes his victory would be being able to add dishes to the list of what we fondly know as Indian classics, and, well, who knows, his tasting menu’s culinary journey might have already gotten him there.
An underrated cuisine from India: Kashmiri cuisine
Most overrated Indian dish: Chicken tikka
A meal you could have thrice a day: Sambar vada
An Indian chef you want to collaborate with: Hussain Shahzad
Five favourite dishes in the world: Any bowl of ramen, South Indian food, prawn balchao at O Pedro, pork ribs at Indian accent, and Rajinder Dhaba (Delhi)’s chicken curry
(Featured Image: Duck Cafreal)
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